During the 1968 Summer Olympic Games, National sprint champion Tommie Smith receives both praise and criticism after he wins a gold medal and makes a perceived political statement by accepting the award with a clenched fist in the air.
NARRATOR: In the fall of 1967, a group of amateur black athletes tried to organize a boycott of the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. Their group was known as the Olympic Project for Human Rights, or the O.P.H.R. The O.P.H.R. was protesting the Olympic Organizing Committee’s admission of countries that allowed apartheid as a national policy. Apartheid was a social and political system of racial segregation and discrimination against blacks, Asian groups and people of mixed race. It was enforced by the white minority government in South Africa and was also practiced in the British Colony of Rhodesia. But the Olympic boycott was also meant to draw attention to the treatment of African Americans in the United States. One member of the O.P.H.R was athlete Tommie Smith. As a national sprint champion, he was one of the top medal hopefuls for the United States. In 1967, he spoke out about politics and its role in the Olympic Games.
INTERVIEWER (archival footage): What about the idea that the Olympics are to be free of politics?
TOMMIE SMITH (archival footage): [Laughs] Right. That's impossible. As you know, politics are a part of athletics now. And I don’t think the next ten or twelve months will change this at all. Why should we participate for a country and are denied some of the rights that should be given us legally from 1865?
NARRATOR: The international Olympic Committee did agree to ban South Africa and Rhodesia from the games, but the boycott never came to pass. As the games got under way, Smith won the gold medal in the 200-meter. John Carlos of the United States took the Bronze. As the Star-Spangled Banner was playing during the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos raised their arms and made a fist in the air to form the arc of what was seen as a Black Power salute. The men wore black socks with no shoes, and shared a pair of gloves: Smith wore the right, Carlos the left. For Smith, it was more symbolic of the suffering of blacks in America.
TOMMIE SMITH: The gloves was not a thought process of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. This was an individual’s thought. The fist in the air, which meant solidarity. And the black socks represented poverty. And also the bowed head in prayer. I was very proud being in it, very proud now to be a black American.
NARRATOR: The silent gesture brought both praise and criticism for John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Some felt their gesture had no place in the traditionally apolitical Olympic games, others believed in their right to protest. Within hours, Smith and Carlos were expelled from the games, suspended from the U.S. team and ordered to leave Mexico City. The order was handed down by then International Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage, who had been accused of having racist views. But with the distance of years, it has come to be seen by most as an act of courage in a time of great turmoil, and considered one of the most iconic moments in Olympic history and the Civil Rights movement.
An athlete silently protests during the national anthem. People respond with angry taunts of "traitor," "you're a disgrace" and "leave our country!"